The positive side to anger

Published on The Hindu.com, by Julian Baggini, March 3, 2009.

… Researchers at Harvard Medical School have now shown this to be the case with anger in the workplace. They found that people who tried to repress frustration at work were more likely to feel trapped under a glass ceiling than those who found ways to let it all out …

… In other times and places, anger is seen not just as part and parcel of life, but even as a virtuous emotion. The Greek Gods were forever erupting and the God of the Old Testament is famously furious. “God judgeth the righteous,” it says in Psalms 7, “and God is angry with the wicked every day.” Nor is the New Testament exactly relaxed. “Be ye angry, and sin not,” advised Paul to the Ephesians, “let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” Jesus also showed anger, at the people in the synagogue who remained silent when he asked if it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath, and when he threw a wobbly at the money changers in the temple.


In all these cases, anger is seen as a justified and proportionate response to wrongdoing. And so it should be. Progress on social justice requires the evocation of anger and guilt even more than it does love and hope. Slavery was abolished because people were enraged by its injustice and prepared to make supporters of it feel very guilty indeed. Love of thy master and hope for a better future certainly didn’t do it. Nor would Emmeline Pankhurst have been more effective if she had learned to get rid of her anger and thought calm thoughts about the paternalist ruling classes. Even hatred, a generally destructive emotion, can sometimes have a place, if directed against systems and ideologies rather than peoples.

One reason why it has become harder to promote the beneficial side of emotions such as anger is that the moral vocabulary of good and bad has been replaced by the self-help lexicon of positive and negative thinking. Armed with such pop-psychology, it’s easy to convince ourselves we are emotionally literate when in fact we’re just using crude rules of thumb to gloss over the complexities of the human psyche. We become like botanists who think that being able to label a specimen means we know all we need to know about it.

In this sense, a little learning about psychology can be a dangerous thing. Whatever the merits of positive thinking, its prevalence has oversimplified the way we conceptualise our emotional lives. “Bad” emotions have an important role to play, while sometimes “positive thinking” leads us away from uncomfortable truths into the realms of wishful thinking.

I would not want to go as far as Woody Allen and suggest that two negative points are as good as a positive one. But negative thoughts about positive thinking should not be taboo. More than that, the universal injunction to think more positively should make us just a little bit angry. (full text).

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